Something new under the sun in Kimberley B.C.

'From brownfields to brightfields,' a small city will soon unveil it's major solar investment
Thursday, February 5, 2015
By Rebecca Melnyk

Off Highway 95A, between the Purcell and Rocky Mountains, where the sun shines more than 300 days of the year, lies Kimberley, British Columbia, population about 6,652 and growing. A mining town where workers once drilled ore by hand, extracting lead and zinc at the old Sullivan Mine two kilometres north, is now surrounded by large tracks of brownfield land: reclaimed, vegetated, pleasing to the eye, fenced-off.

Kimberley can’t build residential accommodations on these abandoned, mineral-depleted sites. But over the past several years, the city has been rectifying the problem of underutilized property with the construction of SunMine, a 1.05-megawatt solar power plant that will tie into the B.C. Hydro system and spark many firsts for Western Canada.

In spring, the completed solar facility will be the largest west of Ontario and one of the first grid-connected solar photovoltaic installations in B.C. “From brownfields to brightfields is what we like to call it,” says Kevin Wilson, economic development officer for the city.

SunMine, wholly owned by Kimberley that has a 30-year lease on the Teck-owned land, will also be the country’s first solar farm located on a remediated mine site, a potential tourism and living incentive that Wilson says reflects how the  community values its natural environment.

“And we hope to share those values with others and generate more interest in Kimberley,” he adds, emphasizing that the city has a history of investing in amenities that create reasons for people to venture there. From building ski resorts and champion golf courses to conducting historic mining tours, the city has been generating other forms of economy since Teck’s mining operations shut down in 2001.

“The SunMine is another piece in that evolution of social entrepreneurship where the community is taking these measured, calculated business risks to create legacy for the future,” Wilson adds. With the SunMine project comes the story behind Kimberley’s development, a town built around the largest lead-zinc mine in the world during the twentieth century, where people flocked to find work, now, a place where those rolling hills hold sustainable value.

“There’s a strong reason to believe solar is going to be an increasing part of our energy mix, especially when you consider externalities and the market volatility of fossil fuel,” says Wilson. “I’d like to think we’re at the beginning of a growing market.”

Situated two hours from Alberta at the edge of high-quality solar resources, SunMine is capitalizing on this worthy spot. This new technology, like 96 solar trackers that help align the panels with the sun and respond to adverse weather effects, is the first of its kind in Canada. “We’re going to create expertise in this area that will enable companies to compete on other contracts as the industry grows,” says Wilson.

In addition, the city currently has a memorandum of understanding with College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, B.C. to collaborate on training and skills development for the monitoring and installation of such technology, generating skills that will one day supply demand.

At the moment, SunMine’s masts and tabletops have all been mounted, along with more than 4,000 solar panels. Inverters and combiner boxes have also been installed. And over the past two weeks, workers have strung the transmission line, which will transfer power from SunMine to Teck’s substation to be transformed into high voltage electricity and pushed through the grid.

Anyone who’s been following the project’s timeline, knows it’s been in the works for a while. What began in 2008, after Vancouver-based EcoSmart Foundation, a non-profit supporter of sustainable technology, suggested the concept, soon evolved into funding applications and on-site energy testing with solar PV systems. Eventually, the city began negotiating contracts and agreements following funding approval from the B.C. Innovative Clean Energy Fund, a $2 million contribution from Teck itself, and a successful city referendum supporting a $2 million loan to be repaid through SunMine revenue.

Once the $5.3-million project is plugged in, the revenue is expected to flow. In 20 years, the city says it will have paid off the loan. Depending on the amount of sunshine, among other factors, cash flow is expected to average $57,800 per year over 25 years, amounting to about $1.5 million—money that will help fund serious infrastructure investments required over the next several years.

The five-acre site is expected to produce 1.3 megawatts of power, enough to power 200 homes, with B.C. Hydro paying 10 cents per kilowatt hour, increasing at the rate of inflation to produce the energy. There’s also the possibility of expansion with an abundance of land and a strong relationship with the land owners. Similar, but smaller-scale projects are being proposed in nearby towns.

A place where prospectors discovered one of the world’s largest ore deposits in 1896 will soon house the country’s first solar project ever supported by a Canadian mining company—a valuable first and a beckon to other brownfield site owners looking to brighten the future.

Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management.

Photo by the City of Kimberley and Teck Resources Limited